Is Loss of Government Economic Survey Data Inevitable?
Search for “BLS” on Data.gov you’ll find at least 148 datasets generated by or associated with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. The files available for the most part are “meat and potatoes” descriptions of economic activity related to employment, jobs, prices, and wages.
Tracking such basic economic activity numbers is of central concern to those responsible for or impacted by government policies and programs. Yet there are proposals before Congress to reduce the number of such survey efforts, as discussed in the Washington Post recently by Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute.
I suspect that, should such basic numbers dry up, there might be cries from users on both the left and the right who make use of such data to buttress their own or their sponsors’ positions. What’s not discussed by Strain is whether alternative sources for such numbers might exist. For example, given degradation of the ability of the Census Bureau to gather numbers on household income via phone and other types of surveys, as discussed at a recent meeting of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Data Advisory Council, Census is experimenting with alternative approaches to estimating household income.
It may not be premature to discuss what role the private sector might play in maintaining availability of such economically important numbers. While I believe it should be the role of the government to manage the collection of such data given the longstanding expertise of government employees regarding such numbers (see this discussion of measuring “income inequality” from the Census Bureau as an example of what I mean) I also believe there is room for experimenting with the private sector’s role in making such data available. For example, the Department of Commerce’s NOAA is experimenting with enlisting the services of private-sector cloud vendors to make environmental and weather data available for public use as well as commercial exploitation. Are agencies such as BLS looking at such alternatives?
While it may be inevitable that all government data collection efforts have to tighten their belts, hopefully the process of making tough prioritization decisions will be done in light of rational factors such as the value of the data to users, the cost of collecting it, the availability of alternatives, and the manner in which data management processes are governed.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Dennis D. McDonald